Anchors Aweigh

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Some 43.6 million Americans have expressed interest in a cruise, yet have never taken one.

Vacation cruises occupy two distinct positions in the general popular consciousness, neither of them flattering. First, there's The Love Boat, “the worst show ever,� as Jon Stewart once put it. Second, there's the nigh-irreparable blowback the industry suffered from Carnival Cruises' liberal use of America's insane next-door neighbor, Kathie Lee Gifford, as spokeswoman.

This is not to say that Princess Cruises doesn't retain some residual camp value from The Love Boat, nor that Gifford doesn't still carry some kind of cachet among older and so-called middle-Americans who cotton to cheeky Lawrence Welk-esque swing choir acts and Branson, Missouri. But with 14 new ships hitting the high seas this year, these are hardly factors destined to lure new consumers into the fresh berths. Fact of the matter is, the cruise industry has an Oldsmobile problem: It is your father's, or your grandfather's, idea of a vacation. Royal Caribbean has recognized that it is heading for this iceberg, and its captains have ordered a sharp tack.

Various cruise companies have occasionally tried diverse approaches to convince us that they are something different from the variety-show-and-buffet staples. Hanging in the balance are some 43.6 million Americans who have expressed interest in a cruise, yet have never taken one, according to the Cruise Line Industry Association, as well as a great many others who never gave it even a first thought. As RC and its agency, Arnold Worldwide, set out to bring new travelers aboard, it became clear this meant, de facto, plumbing the realms of younger consumers, in the 35 to 54 range.

The frontispiece of this effort involves a hefty TV campaign, with each spot centering on one port of call with a quick-cut barrage of off-ship activities. Iggy Pop's song “Lust for Life,� and backbeat-matched editing itself speaks more to the rock ’n’ roll generations. In one spot, an African American couple rides bikes all over Copenhagen. In another, a family rides wave-runners and swims with stingrays off Grand Cayman. A no-nonsense female voice-over urges, “Get out there.� Part-and-parcel of the pitch, the campaign directs consumers to the revamped RC Web site. There, the online consumer can browse an even wider array of first-person footage, sort of mini-spots that break out separate vignettes from each commercial and even offer a click option to see first-person POV footage. Copenhagen, for example, breaks out into a tour of Kronborg Castle and trips to the city's top nightspots.

It is this focus, a revision of the role of the ship, that puts RC at the forward edge of its business. In essence, both with the ads and the Web site breakout tours, the company is repainting its role as less a singular resort-on-the-water destination of itself and more of a conduit to things foreign and different. This move strikes directly at the Oldsmobile stigma of the industry, which Yankelovich research encapsulated for RC in three common consumer descriptors: “sedentary,� “regimented,� and “boring.�

“There is so much more to a cruise vacation,� says Pam Hamlin, executive vice president and group account director at Arnold. “You're going into some of the coolest ports, some of the neatest cities and countries, on some of the coolest short excursions you can do, and that story hasn't been told yet. … That's the heart of the strategy, ‘Get out there, do it, see it.’ It's an appeal to a mindset we call the ‘Explorers,’ people who might be 30 or 70, but who don't want to be sightseers or lounge-chair potatoes. Sure, they want a piña colada at the pool at some point, but they also want to go bike riding in Copenhagen or swimming with dolphins.�

Still, these types of consumers are going to be found more frequently further down the age spectrum, Hamlin says. The 2000 Yankelovich Monitor indicates how these cues press toward an ever younger audience. Asked what factors weighed as “extremely important … when considering vacation alternatives,� some 44 percent of Generation Xers, now as old as age 35, and 40 percent of Baby Boomers (aged 36 to 54), say they want to “experience new and different places and things to do.� Thirty-four percent of the 55-plus consumers expressed similar sentiments. In addition, 25 percent of Gen Xers and 20 percent of Boomers said they wanted to sate a “sense for adventure,� versus 14 percent of more mature consumers.

“If a cruise line is going after this younger audience, there's a limit to how much they can really say,� says Jim Cammisa, publisher of Travel Industry Indicators, the industry's top trend-tracker. “A ship might have an active kind of environment — there's one with an ice skating rink, and there are rock climbing walls — but there are probably limitations in terms of how far [cruise lines in general] can go. So it's very clever of Royal Caribbean to go off the ship and make itself a point of access to all these other kinds of things. This goes directly after that active type of consumer who was turned off by the perception of the cruise as a passive vacation.�

Also salient to the RC campaign is its delivery system. Yes, the campaign's media reflects its broader reach, adding younger-skewing programming such as NBC's Just Shoot Me and Fox's Friday night lineup to its ad schedule. But further engaging, are its multimedia crossover tactics, not just in getting consumers to click through any number of mini-adventures, but in getting them onto what is becoming the prime medium for vacation planning.

Despite the much-bemoaned shakeout in the virtual economy, travel “agent� Web sites such as Travelo-city.com and Expedia.com remain two of the biggest spenders of the dot-com world, and consumer purchasing behavior shows why. According to the Travel Industry Association of America, some 60.5 million consumers are expected to use the Internet to make travel plans this year, up from 25 million in 1996. Further, this number is expected to jump to some 71.9 million next year. Of those making Internet travel plans, about 20 percent are making actual travel purchases online. And as we look at which segment is doing this, we find they are overwhelmingly younger and middle-aged consumers — 44 percent 18 to 34, 48 percent 35 to 54 — hardly the cruise line core market.

So RC, by bringing these consumers to its online interface, is also bringing a growing number of them to their point of travel deliberation and purchasing. Accordingly, the site offers QuickReserve service and a search function to find a travel agent. “The emphasis on the Web site is significant in doing two things,� Cammisa says. “One, in that it's picking up where the commercials leave off, and two, in growing this exponentially as a prime distribution channel, even as the travel agent business is shrinking in size.�

Disney's massive campaign for its own cruise line invariably paints it as a large scale babysitter that gives parents a respite of pampering and sunny sloth. Carnival, post-Gifford, has begun using testimonials that seem content to woo its stereotypical autumnal market. And it's not as if RC is abrogating the traditional core market of the cruise; Green Day won't be playing the Nordic Empress anytime soon.

But as the Baby Boomers and Gen Xers continue to age, peddlers of such traditional services would do well to understand, as RC has, that each generation accepts its fate, or doesn't, differently. In both cases, a Peter Pan complex seems to be at work, if in different permutations. And as a result, the last brand they will buy into is one that invites them to slow down and act their age.

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